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How To Spot Fake News

Lori Robertson, How To Spot Fake News

With Lori Robertson, Managing Editor of Factcheck.org

How To Spot Fake News

These days it seems harder than ever to tell fact from fiction. With all our social media platforms, false stories reach the masses in seconds.  So, how can you make sure you know the true from the false?

Lori Robertson, Managing Editor of factcheck.org, helps us understand what to look for.

What Is Fake News?

Not all fake news is 100% fiction.  It can also be:

  1. Distortions
  2. Bits of truth
  3. Fabricated Messages
  4. Satire

Fake News Red Flags

So, how can you protect yourself?  Here are some basic red flags.

  1. Look for an author. If the author is anonymous, this may indicate the story is false.
  2. Watch out for excessive exclamation points, capital letters, and misspellings.
  3. Anything claiming “This is NOT a hoax!” is most likely hoax.
  4. Links to a source that don’t support or that contradict the claims being made. Be careful about clicking on unknown links.

How To Spot Fake News: The Checklist

Here’s a checklist to keep in mind.

Consider the Source

Abcnews.com.co was claiming to be ABC News.  But upon further examination, the red flag was the .co at the end of the URL, which had nothing to do with ABC News in any way.

Boston Tribune was another bogus site that fooled a lot of people.  When looking at their “Contact Us” page, only one suspicious Gmail address was listed.  Furthermore, there is no such publication as The Boston Tribune.

Read Beyond The Headline

Shocking headlines are compelling, but before tweeting or reposting, it’s always smart to research for accuracy of content.

As an example, did you hear about the Obamas buying a vacation home in Dubai?  This made-up tale came from WhatDoesItMean.com that described itself as “One Of The Top Ranked Websites In The World for New World Order, Conspiracy Theories, and Alternative News”.

Check The Author

A pledge of allegiance story on abcnews.com.co was supposedly written by “Jimmy Rustling.” His author page claimed he was a “doctor” who won “14 Peabody awards and Pulitzer Prizes.” Upon further investigation, no “Rustling” had ever won a Pulitzer or Peabody award and, in fact, his website revealed that it was all a big joke.

Check The Date

False stories could also be something related to current events that happened long ago.  Lori gives the example of a report that Ford Motors had moved car production from Mexico to Ohio, due to Trump’s election.

Blogs were linking to a CNN Money article titled “Ford shifts truck production from Mexico to Ohio.” The truth was that the story was actually from August 2015 and the move was originally announced by Ford in March 2014.

In October 2015, Trump took credit for Ford’s change of heart, tweeting a link to a story on a blog called Prntly.com, which cited the CNN Money story. In fact, Ford hadn’t changed its plans at all, and Trump deserved no credit.

“Ford has not spoken with Mr. Trump, nor have we made any changes to our plans,” Ford said in a statement.

Check Your Biases

Try this simple test: What other news is featured on the source of the story that just popped up in your Facebook feed?  Obama bought a house in Dubai might seem possible, but if it’s next to another story claiming: “Antarctica ‘Guardians’ Retaliate Against America With Massive New Zealand Earthquake”, it’s a fake.

Consult The Experts

You’re busy, we get it. But this is an epidemic, and there are tools you can use for help. FactCheck.org is just one reliable source you can use to check if something is fact or fiction.

Disclosure: The opinions expressed are those of the interviewee and not necessarily United Capital.  Interviewee is not a representative of United Capital. Investing involves risk and investors should carefully consider their own investment objectives and never rely on any single chart, graph or marketing piece to make decisions.  Content provided is intended for informational purposes only, is not a recommendation to buy or sell any securities, and should not be considered tax, legal, investment advice. Please contact your tax, legal, financial professional with questions about your specific needs and circumstances.  The information contained herein was obtained from sources believed to be reliable, however their accuracy and completeness cannot be guaranteed. All data are driven from publicly available information and has not been independently verified by United Capital.

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Steve Pomeranz: Fake news is nothing new. The U.S. Has a long history of phony news from the days of yellow journalism, where the Pulitzer-owned New York World and the Hearst New York Journal are commonly credited with leading America into the Spanish-American War through their false and incendiary claims. The difference today is that bogus stories can reach more people more quickly via social media than what good old-fashioned newspapers and viral emails could accomplish in years past. Add in the phenomena of Facebook and Google and the now obvious false postings during the election, and we’ve got a serious problem on our hands. So, who has our back? I wondered about this and asked one of the leading fact-checking organizations to talk with me today to help us understand their process. I want to welcome Lori Robertson, Managing Editor of FactCheck.org.

Hi, Lori. Welcome.

Lori Robertson: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Steve Pomeranz: So, Lori, all of us go about our busy daily lives doing the things that we know how to do, all the while trying to keep up with the latest developments. We hope that the sources that we entrust to help us give us a balanced picture and are working in our best interest. Obviously, that’s not always the case. So, what do we need to know about these news organizations today with regards to their various agendas and their pressures that they’re under commercially?

Lori Robertson: Sure. Well, news organizations have been under financial pressure for some time, but we are seeing … Well, we’ve seen less local newspapers, the closure of some small local newspapers over the years or a lot of big cities used to have two big newspapers. In most cities, one of them has now been shuttered, but we are seeing the growth of online news organizations, which is great, but we are also seeing so many different news sites that consumers of news really need to be savvy, really need to consider where they’re getting their news. If you’re seeing something and you’ve never heard of that news organization before, it does take a little bit of time to look into, okay, well, what is this site and where is this news coming from?

Steve Pomeranz: Absolutely. How does Fact Check come into the picture here? How long has it been around, and how is it funded?

Lori Robertson: Sure. Well, we came on the scene in 2003. We are a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which is at the University of Pennsylvania, and we were launched to fact check political claims. We consider ourselves a consumer advocate to help voters sort through all the messages that are coming at them.

When we launched, it was really about ads, television ads. Those were the main mechanisms through which politicians communicated with voters, but today, we are looking at a whole different range of communication, Facebook, tweets. It used to be you couldn’t see stump speeches that were done somewhere in the country, but now all of those things are streaming on YouTube, so we have a lot of different forms of communication that we’re looking at now. And as far as our funding, we are primarily funded with Annenberg Foundation money. We once got a couple of grants from the Flora Foundation when we did some educational work. We do take donations from individuals. Anybody who gives us $1,000 or more, we identify them on our website by name and city and state, and we get a little bit of money now from Facebook because we’re doing some work with Facebook to help identify these made-up viral claims that we’ve seen a growth of.

Steve Pomeranz: Tell me a little bit about the work that you’re doing with Facebook.

Lori Robertson: Sure. Well, we and four other fact-checking organizations signed on to fact check, like I said, these viral claims. Facebook had seen a real growth in these messages. Some of these websites that are spreading these messages are satirical, or they say they’re satirical, but a lot of people are believing the claims that they’re making. Others aren’t really telling you what their motivation is but are spreading completely fabricated stories. So, we started that work with Facebook where we investigate stories that both Facebook has identified as being flagged by its users and that our readers are also directly asking us about. The way the project works is if we identify a viral claim as false and one of the other news organizations or—I should say it doesn’t have to be us—At least two of the fact-checking organizations have to identify a claim as being false, and once they do that, the claim on Facebook gets a little notation to let viewers know that this has been flagged by fact-checking organizations.

Steve Pomeranz: What is the process Fact Check goes through to determine that something is actually fake? I mean, is it a process? Is it just looking up basic facts? Some things are just really not so easy to hunt down.

Lori Robertson: Sure. You know, some things are simple for us. Readers will ask us or say, “We saw this on Facebook,” and they’ll have a website, and we can go to that website, and you go to the About Us page on that website, and it says, “Don’t believe anything here. This is satire,” and our work is done, right? Other things are not that obvious, and we need to look into what they’re saying. It really depends on what the claims on. We’ve seen a lot of viral claims in recent years that will say, “Oh, the President signed an executive order saying this,” and they’ll even give the number of the executive order making it sound really official, but either there’s no executive order with that name we can go look them up on the government’s website, or there is an executive order with that number, and it says nothing of the sort.

So, it really depends on what the claims are, and sometimes, readers will say, “Hey, I heard this. Some guy in Starbucks told me this,” and it’s a lot more online research for us to try to figure out what was the genesis of this thing that our readers are hearing.

Steve Pomeranz: You know, you have this idea of fake news, which, in a sense, seems very black or white or just misrepresentations of the facts, and you can go in, and you can double check, you can look at a website, and so on, but it’s important not to lump everything into the fake news category because some of it is just un-researched. It’s shoddy. Some of it is deliberately misleading reporting, so the areas get more gray than they used to. So, how do you break it down below or into the subcategories below fake news?

Lori Robertson: Sure. Well, we would not use the term fake news for things that are not completely fabricated messages. That said, you’re right; sometimes some of these online stories will pull the first paragraph from a legitimate news story, for instance, and then it just goes off into some made up things.

The same kind of thing with outdated stories. There will be an older legitimate news story that one of these online websites will suddenly proclaim as new. So, yeah, there are different levels of, well, did they completely make everything up, or is there a little piece of truth and then new stuff that’s not correct.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, I think one of the warnings that you give to people is to check the date because you list a story about Ford Motors moving car production from Mexico to Ohio, which was actually something that happened prior to the election, or it was announced prior to the election, but these stories brought it into the current frame of time after the election. Tell us about that.

Lori Robertson: Yes. So, we saw that we got many requests from readers asking us, “Hey, did Ford move car production to Mexico to Ohio because Trump was elected?” Readers would site various blog items … This is another thing with viral claims. They’ll be posted on several different sites, and so these sites were quoting from and even linking to a CNN Money article that was a perfectly legitimate article. It was titled “Ford shifts truck production from Mexico to Ohio,” but if you check the date on that story, it was from August 2015. Clearly not evidence that Ford was moving production because of the election because it was more than a year before the election.

We saw one website just lifted the entire CNN Money article, stuck it on their own website, put a new headline on top and a new date and fooled a lot of people that way.

Steve Pomeranz: Right. I’m speaking with Lori Robertson, Managing Editor of FactCheck.org. We’re going to be right back in one moment.

Steve Pomeranz: I’m back with Lori Robertson. She’s the Managing Editor at FactCheck.Org, and we’re trying to figure out this business of fact-checking and fake news and other distortions, so we can get an idea of what to believe, what not to believe, and also where to go to test out some of these things that we’re reading. In 2008, Lori, Fact Check described a list of red flags, you call them key characteristics of bogus-ness. And they’re clear tip-offs that a chain email wasn’t legitimate. Take us through some of those.

Lori Robertson: Sure. An anonymous author is one, and you know, back in 2008 when we were doing this, we were really dealing with those chain emails or viral emails. But these same tips still come into play today when we’re dealing with websites or memes on Facebook. But an anonymous author is definitely a tip-off. You know, why is there nobody’s name associated with this? Also, we were having a little bit of fun with these messages in 2008 too, when we said excessive exclamation points, capital letters, and misspellings are a tip-off that maybe this isn’t correct. You would see those a lot in the viral emails that we dealt with. We also found a lot of those emails would say, sometimes repeatedly, this is not a hoax. So you have to question if this is legitimate information, why is whoever is writing this trying to convince me that oh, it’s not a hoax. And then the last thing was linking to sourcing that does not support, or sometimes it would completely contradict the claims being made. Now we would warn people to be careful about clicking on links, particularly in emails with the phishing scams that are out there these days. But you know, you can Google the information and find it in other ways. Because…

Steve Pomeranz: Well, I think the greatest tool you can have when going through these are the delete button, and just get rid of them and move on.

Lori Robertson: Yes, please.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, yeah, use your common sense. So, let’s talk about some advice on how to spot a fake. The first example you gave us was consider the source, and you have to be really careful, I’m going to explain one very quickly. There was some news from a website that had the address of ABCNews.com, but then it was .Co. And that’s not the actual URL for ABC News. So what else are you seeing here that can trick us to thinking it’s a legitimate website?

Lori Robertson: Yes, there’s some pretty sophisticated efforts to fool people into thinking these websites are legitimate news organizations. There was another one that called itself WTOE 5 News, which sounds like a news organization, right? Either television or radio station. But if you went to the About page on that site, which I definitely suggest doing, because a lot of these sites will tell you what they’re about on the About page. That site said it was a fantasy news website. Lots of them will be very upfront about saying, “We’re satire, this is satire, it’s not true.”

Others won’t. There was another website created called the Boston Tribune. There is no newspaper called the Boston Tribune, but it looked more or less like a legitimate news website. But if you went to their Contact Us page, it listed a Gmail address and no physical address or any other information. So another tip-off that this might not be legitimate.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, there was one claim that the Obamas were buying a vacation home in Dubai. And that came from WhatDoesItMean.Com, which described itself as one of the top ranked websites in the world for new world order conspiracy theories and alternative news. And further, it says on the site that most of what it publishes is fiction. The problem, Lori, is that a lot of us are really not going to take the time to go that deep, and we’re just kind of hoping that we can smell these things out on our own.

Lori Robertson: I know.

Steve Pomeranz: So, number two is read beyond the headline, I think we’ve mentioned that. Check the author, another telltale sign of a fake story is the byline, and you tell of one person Jimmy Rustling, and [inaudible 00:05:00], and Darius Rubicks, tell us about that a little bit.

Lori Robertson: Yeah, so kind of strange names might tip you off that this isn’t legitimate. Some of these websites will use the same name for every single story, which you’ve got to think, “Well, I don’t think this person wrote every single thing on this website.” And then sometimes like with the Jimmy Rustling example, you could click on the link to Jimmy Rustling and he had his own author page, and it was clear that it was a joke. Claimed that Jimmy Rustling was a doctor who won 14 Peabody awards and a handful of Pulitzer Prizes. If you wanted to go even further you could check the Pulitzer Prize website and see that nobody by that name has ever won a prize.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, you guys are doing that.

Lori Robertson: Yeah, we can do that. But you know, sometimes you read behind the headline and it becomes increasingly clear that okay, this is a joke.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.

Lori Robertson: They really throw in some silly stuff.

Steve Pomeranz: Well, talking about jokes, So there are some true satirical sites, some that come to mind are the site from Andy Borowitz, also the Onion.Com is one, and they’re pretty funny. But sometimes you can actually be tripped up by some of these sites as well because the headlines are clever, but sometimes they may be a little bit too subtle.

Lori Robertson: Yeah, definitely. I don’t know if any of our readers have ever asked us about an Onion story. But we’ve had several emails about Andy Borowitz’s work with the New Yorker and say, “Is this true?” And sometimes they’ll say, “This doesn’t sound right,” or, “I’m kind of skeptical, but could you confirm for me?” And we email them back and say, “That’s a satire column, it’s not supposed to be true in any way.”

Steve Pomeranz: Right, right. Make a note of that when you see it the next time.

Lori Robertson: Yeah.

Steve Pomeranz: So the other … I think the other point that you make, and I think this is probably the hardest one for all of us to work with is to check our biases. Confirmation bias leads us to take more stock in information that confirms our beliefs and discount information that doesn’t. So take us through that a little bit.

Lori Robertson: Sure. You know, and that’s really human nature to see a headline, maybe when you’re scrolling through your Facebook page, and it confirms a belief that you have, so you believe it. And we really warn people, the next time you’re instantly appalled at something that you saw on Facebook, take a moment to check it out before you forward it on. And I think that’s why these things spread so quickly these days, is that people see the headline, they immediately post it onto their page or Tweet it and send it to friends without really looking into it. So often, as we’ve gone through here today, if you look at who’s the author? What’s this website? What’s the date? You can start to easily see signs that this isn’t a legitimate source of news.

Steve Pomeranz: You know, there was one viral message that I saw, and quite frankly, I believed it until now, and it’s the comment that Trump was supposed to have made in People Magazine many years ago. He was quoted as saying, and this was in 1998, “If I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country, they believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they’d still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific.” So anyway, that turned out to be in no way a true quote, is that correct?

Lori Robertson: It’s not true, it was made up. Yeah, and it was on a meme, there was a picture of Trump and then this quote was on it. And our readers started sending us that meme saying, “Hey, I got this, is it correct?” And you know, you can check People Magazine’s archives, sometimes you do need to be a news organization and have something like Nexus or another service where you can look through that information.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.

Lori Robertson: Or spend a lot of time at your library. But we were able to look through People’s archives from that … This was supposedly from 1998, we looked there, also other years. And then we contacted People, and said, “Do you know anything about this?” And they had seen this meme, and told us that they combed through every Trump story they had, they couldn’t find anything remotely like this quote, and there wasn’t even an interview with him in 1998, the year he supposedly said this.

Steve Pomeranz: I’ll tell you why this is insidious. He made a statement during the election that he could stand on 5th Avenue, he could shoot someone, and it wouldn’t matter. So that’s kind of duplicated here, I could lie and they’d still eat it up. And also, I bet my numbers would be terrific, that sounds like Trump. So it’s even more insidious because they’re kind of covering, it’s actually quite cleverly written if you think about it. They’re covering, they’re shadowing something that he said, he actually said, and not that this is what he said. And they said it in the kind of vernacular that he would use.

Now, there was another viral claim that you checked purporting to show crime statistics on the percentage of whites killed by blacks and other murder statistics by race. What was that? And what was Trump’s involvement there?

Lori Robertson: Sure, well, this was another made up meme. It was a graphic that was going around on social media. And Donald Trump retweeted it, he was a candidate then, it was during the election. And even talked to Bill O’Reilly on Fox News about it and claimed that it came from credible sources. But this was supposed FBI crime data in the graphic, and you can look that up, FBI crime data is publicly available. And nearly every figure in this graphic was wrong. The source that it gave on the graphic was something called Crime Statistics Bureau San Francisco, that doesn’t exist.

Steve Pomeranz: That doesn’t even exist.

Lori Robertson: So again, clear signs, but you’re right, you have to take the time to look into that. And I think both the cases we’ve just cited show that those messages were designed to hit a bias and hit a belief and tap into that. And I don’t know, some of these memes, I’m not sure what the motivation is. Is the motivation simply to see if people believe it, and see how far it spreads? Perhaps. But one thing we haven’t mentioned with a lot of the online websites, the motivation is money. Before you would send out a viral email, there was not real monetary reward for that. But now you know, some of these sites are just designed to create clicks and get people to visit, so that they can make ad money.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, yeah. And some may be more insidious, just kind of trying to divide the country, and who knows what’s really behind. I think the issue here is that the President of the United States retweeted something like this without doing his own fact-checking and so on. So it gives it further credence. My guest is Lori Robertson, Managing Editor of FactCheck.Org. And if you want to listen to this segment again or read the transcripts, or read a summary about what was discussed here, don’t forget to go to our website, StevePomeranz.Com, that’s StevePomeranz.Com. Lori Robertson, thank you so much for joining us today.

Lori Robertson: Thanks for having me.